How climate change and fire exclusion drive wildfire regimes at actionable scales
Extreme wildfires are increasing in frequency globally, prompting new efforts to mitigate risk. The ecological appropriateness of risk mitigation strategies, however, depends on what factors are driving these increases. While regional syntheses attribute increases in fire activity to both climate change and fuel accumulation through fire exclusion, they have not disaggregated causal drivers at scales where land management is implemented. Recent advances in fire regime modeling can help us understand which drivers dominate at management-relevant scales. We conducted fire regime simulations using historical climate and fire exclusion scenarios across two watersheds in the Inland Northwestern U.S., which occur at different positions along an aridity continuum. In one watershed, climate change was the key driver increasing burn probability and the frequency of large fires; in the other, fire exclusion dominated in some locations. We also demonstrate that some areas become more fuel-limited as fire-season aridity increases due to climate change. Thus, even within watersheds, fuel management must be spatially and temporally explicit to optimize effectiveness. To guide management, we show that spatial estimates of soil aridity (or temporally averaged soil moisture) can provide a relatively simple, first-order indicator of where in a watershed fire regime is climate vs. fuel-limited and where fire regimes are most vulnerable to change.